MIRZAPUR (2018) – A strange duality

mirzapur

[This piece contains a shed load of spoilers so best to read after you have seen the TV series].

Mirzapur takes its time to come to life. In the final episode a wedding reception descends into a cornucopia of shootings. Reviews have remarked on how Mirzapur is derivative of the depraved noir soaked universe of Anurag Kashyap’s gangster films notably Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW). Naturally it is almost impossible not to draw that comparison considering the influence of GoW on the Indian gangster genre. However, take Mirzapur out of the wider cinephile context and read the series as a genre piece then the reversion to type becomes altogether understandable. The thing is Mirzapur strives to use a steely cinematic aesthetic but beneath the burdensome style is a judicious soap opera narrative that carries with it a transgressive socio-political subtext. Mirzapur maps a crime milieu that is fairly conventional to the gangster/crime genre – the heinous don, his emasculated son, the two brothers in over their heads, the don’s army of loyal foot soldiers, and of course, the power struggle over the city between rival gangs. But as it is often the case with genre cinema, the willingness to repeat the standard repertoire of elements is part of the audience pleasures of having our expectations fulfilled. Undeniably, a great genre work reinvents and innovates or adds something we may have not encountered before. Stacked up against the best of the Indian gangster genre Mirzapur falls short yet I stuck with it mainly because we’ve never really had a contemporary TV series from India on this scale that has the time to build a crime world that often gets a short shrift. Indeed, GoW succeeded in achieving this feat because it was split in two parts and interestingly was later broadcast as a TV series on Netflix.

Many gangster films can be read as a commentary on masculinity. But what makes Mirzapur seemingly different is the hierarchy of masculinity the film weaves is indicative of a wider contemporary social and political reality in which the character of Akhandanand Tripathi (Panjak Tripathi), popularly known as Kaleen Bhaiya, emerges as a symbol for Modi. It is important to note that Tripathi is a surname associated with upper caste Brahmins in India. Moreover, Mirzapur, which means ‘Place of the King’ has a notable Muslim past and history, one of many towns and cities in India that are having their names redacted as part of Hindutva historical engineering. Mirzapur is a microcosm of Modi’s India. Perhaps it is of little surprise that Kaleen Bhaiya rules despotically over the city with a reign of terror. And it is a rule that is contested intermittently and with which it brings violent repression. Since the line between business and politics in the world of the gangster has often been absent, the power Kaleen Bhaiya exerts over the city is overwhelming ubiquitous. The benign demeanour of Kaleen Bhaiya invokes the media friendly image cultivated by Modi whose impulse for genocide and murder remain repressed beneath the extravagantly tailored clothes, explicating an incomparable degree of self-aggrandizement.

Ideologically, the coding of the Brahmin gangster ruling over a Muslim named city holds a veritable denotation that ties in with the figure of Maqbool (Shaji Chaudhury), the loyal right hand man of Kaleen Bhaiya, a Muslim who has been brought into the fold of the family, yet another metaphor for political appeasement and tokenistic overtures of the BJP used to placate anti-Muslim sentiments. Maqbool’s presence, reduced to a narrative function, becomes a symbolic link to the one time Islamicate culture of the city, a history far removed. But there is a strange duality to the reading of Kaleen Bhaiya as a projection of Modi. The lawlessness of Mirzapur, a city over which the state does not have real power, and which is ruled over by the liminal figure of the gangster, is depicted in opposition to the state. The repeated attempts at trying to bring the city under the control of the police, a police force that is predictably bought off by the Tripathi clan, posits Kaleen Bhaiya as somebody who poses a threat to the prevailing social order. So when Kaleen Bhaiya antagonises both the Chief Minister of Mirzapur and the Police Chief sent to restore law and order, his attempts to hold onto some kind of autonomy directly challenges civil rule.

Over the course of the series it is masculinity that is toxic, entangled in a web of interrelated male anxieties from which everyone is suffering a symptomatic social malaise; misogyny. Guddu (Ali Fazal) is building the perfect body so that he can enter the Mr. Purvanchal competition, resorting to steroids that take their toil on his well being. Hard body hyper-masculinity, a current idiom of popular Hindi cinema, has become part of the iconography of male heroism, the gym-sculpted bodies amplifying Hindutva soft power and conjoined by the materialisation of the gun. Unlike mainstream imaginings of hyper-masculinity in which Salman and Ajay flex their muscles, Guddu’s body becomes an aberration over which he has little self-control. Anxieties to do with masculinity materialise profusely. For instance, Kaleen Bhaiya cannot satisfy the sexual appetites of his wife and Munna Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma), his over zealous son, is an emasculated toad who fails repeatedly to woe a girl he lusts after at college. Indeed, many of the imaginings of male anxieties rely on stereotyping and the overwhelming representation of masculinity is one of abject failure with the fear of emasculation a recurring psychological threat.

Ramakant Pandit (Rajesh Tailang), a symbol of the upstanding citizen, who defies the rule of Kaleen Bhaiya is a common feature of the gangster genre but Pandit’s morally righteous stance is undone by his own children. Pandit never capitulates to the demands of Kaleen Bhaiya’s despotic rule but his coercion into silence becomes yet another metaphor for the ways in which the left leaning secularist middle class has also lost its will and courage to speak out in the face of violent, corrupt rule. If Kaleen Bhaiya’s rule can be read as an allegory for Modi, the BJP & Hindutva then this particular paradigm or axis of neofascism is manifested even more clearly in the recruitment of Guddu and Bablu (Vikrant Massey), young disaffected men who are often recruited by right wing nationalist groups and instrumentalized as both an electoral device and extension of Hindutva violence. Guddu and Bablu argue they have no other choice other than to join Kaleen Bhaiya, a stark reminder of the degrees of conformity and coercion that exists when there is few other viable alternatives. It is important to recognise that Pandit never backs down but the price he pays for his defiance is self-exile and isolation from his family, an apt comment on the dire consequences of speaking out against the establishment.

Ideologically, and perhaps most elucidating, is the final episode, which is all about the violent reassertion of Hindutva masculinity that is threatened on many different levels notably by a sexual potency harboured by the lower caste. The vehemence of this reassertion finds a grotesque imagining in the sub plot of Beena Tripathi (Raskia Dugal), the matriarch of the Tripathi clan, who is carrying on with a lower caste servant. Bauji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), her benign father in law and impaired patriarch of the family, soon discovers what has been going; only he doesn’t tell Kaleen but exploits the situation for his own sadistic pleasures. Bauji blackmails Beena into having sex with him then coerces her to dismember the servant’s penis, a horrific act of violence that not only equates the woman and lower caste servant as powerless in the face of a double bind of patriarchal-caste oppression but also offers a historical link to systemic caste discrimination. In the final episode, Mirzapur seems to say everything it wants to and fails to in earlier episodes, albeit the time it takes imagine a world of crime is full of narrative diversions and intermissions, a trajectory that really doesn’t add up to anything significant. Nonetheless, there is still much to savour here in terms of a prescient socio-political subtext which intermittently pushes to the surface with a strange duality and notable disaffection for the current state of things.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012, US) – ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business…’

Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man ‘Jackie Cogan’

‘And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope…’         

– President Obama’s acceptance speech, 2008

Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film’s representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre. 

Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America’s transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s. 

Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films. 

The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis. 

This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.